Vox Populi vs. Trump Tweet: Who Really Saved the Office of Congressional Ethics?

Hint: the former.

The New York Times published an op-ed yesterday by Ezra Levin, Leah Greenberg and Angel Padilla, former congressional staffers and authors of Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda. Their op-ed, like their recently published guide, describes using certain Tea Party tactics to resist the Trump presidency, namely the power of local organizing:

But this fight won’t be won by politicos in Washington, D.C. It will be won by groups in Fort Collins, Colo., Hershey, Pa., Houston and Atlanta who were organizing for justice long before a handful of former congressional staffers wrote some guide. It will be won by groups in Tucson, Madison, Wis., and St. Louis who started organizing resistance in just the last few weeks. It will be won by you, and it starts today.

There was a neat bit of concinnity there between the timing of this op-ed and the decision by House Republicans to scrap a rules changes they had secretly voted to introduce just a day ago, one that would have neutered the Office of Congressional Ethics’ ability to investigate ethically wayward members of the House. The reason for the change of heart? A combination of a good old-fashioned demonstration of the power of the people and of organizing, prominent coverage of the decision, and a bit of an assist from a mildly critical Trump tweet.

But reading the initial headlines and stories, you would have thought it was all about the tweet.

“President-elect Donald Trump dramatically strong-armed House Republicans into line Tuesday in his first Washington power play, after they voted to gut an ethics watchdog in a manner that undercut his vow to drain the establishment ‘swamp,'” read the lede on a CNN article about the reversal, even though a quote from a “senior House GOP aide familiar with the discussion” that appeared in the article had Trump’s tweet as a secondary cause:

“The pressure was building in the press and from constituents this morning regarding the way the reforms were put into place last night. Early this morning it became clear we would have a vote problem on the floor with this amendment. Leadership called a special all-conference meeting where it was agreed to by unanimous consent to strip the amendment,” the aide said.

“It’s safe to say that Trump’s tweets probably added to that pressure but it was already being heavily covered in the press,” the aide added.

It was in the headline of a Washington Post piece as “House Republicans back off gutting ethics watchdog after backlash from Trump”

Mention of other groups came once the Trump v. Congress drama had played out in earlier paragraphs:

Democrats and other watchdog groups were also critical of the Monday night vote. A coalition of more than a dozen organizations and activists expressed their frustration in a Tuesday morning letter to House Democratic and Republican leadership. Members also faced a barrage of angry phone calls from constituents.

“I can tell you the calls we’ve gotten in my district office and here in Washington surprised me, meaning the numbers of calls. People are just sick and tired,” Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) said of the simmering outrage over the proposed change. “People are just losing confidence in the lack of ethics and honesty in Washington.”

“House G.O.P. Abandons Effort to Gut Ethics Watchdog After Trump Tweets” went the Vanity Fair headline.

For Bloomberg it was “House GOP Reverses on Ethics Change After Trump Criticism”.

There were some alternative takes, including an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times with its asked-and-answered headline, “Did a Trump tweet save the Office of Congressional Ethics? Not really” and, we admit the irony, some tweeted observations:

Framing the narrative as Trump tweet saves the Office of Congressional Ethics perpetuates a damaging, ultimately self-perpetuating storyline (Trump has the power to bend anyone and anything to his will) and continues the media’s (we’re using the term here as the collective perception of such) willingness to have its coverage bent and shaped by Donald Trump.

At the same time, it ignores the real story, the one that, as we pointed out at the beginning of the post, emphasizes that people have power. And when examples of how deliberate, collective public outcry shapes public policy and pressures politicians are cast aside in favor of the more exciting, pugilistic version of events, it demoralizes and sets the stage for the worship of false political idols.

This story could have been a great example of how representative democracy should, and can, work, rather than one that celebrates, intentionally or not, correctly or not, the power of strongman politics.

But when there is no coverage to combat the sense that the vox populi carries no weight in the governing process, we get people desperate for “change,” no matter how abstract and vague, we get people taken in by populists peddling appealing but empty promises of being the only person who can fix it, whatever “it” is. And then we get coverage that complies accordingly.

That the people have more power than they think is a good, newsworthy story. Let’s not ignore it into oblivion.